Young and Hungry

Splendid Tablet: Ordering and Paying for Food Goes High-Tech

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No servers will take your order and no check will arrive when you eat at Bolt Burgers, opening near the convention center at the end of the month. Instead, if you’re dining in, a greeter will bring you to a table and hand you an iPad-like tablet. Scroll through, select a burger, fries, grilled cheese, or salad, and swipe your credit card along the screen. The greeter will then bring you a ticket and take the tablet (while checking ID if you purchased beer or wine). The food will arrive shortly.

And if fumbling with a tablet seems like it will take too much time, there’s an even faster way: Before you reach the restaurant, order online and get a personal identification number. When you arrive, a greeter will enter the PIN to start the order. All you have to do is sit down and wait for your food to be placed in front of you. Just doing carryout? Head to one of the three touch-screen kiosks to order. No human contact necessary.

“It fits today’s lifestyle,” says co-owner Joe Spinelli of Restaurant Consultants Inc. “It’s where everybody’s going to be at some point.”

As novel as Bolt Burgers’ system seems now, technology like that is becoming increasingly commonplace in restaurants. Tablets are making their way into a number of casual chains, and new mobile apps make it possible to pay for your coffee, salad, or bar tab from your phone. For diners, it means getting food faster, no longer having to flag down a server for a check, and not worrying about handing a credit card over to a stranger. And for restaurants, new apps and gadgets have the potential to turn tables faster, while targeting customers and collecting feedback in a way they weren’t able to before.

Besides Bolt Burgers, casual chains across the country have been rolling out tablets that allow diners to order and pay without a server. Red Robin, Uno Chicago Grill, and Applebee’s are all starting to use tablets from a Texas-based company called Ziosk (though not yet at any of their D.C.-area locations). Within the first half of next year, Ziosk tablets will also be at every Chili’s in the country. They’re currently available at more than 30 Chili’s locations in the D.C. area (all in the suburbs), plus the On The Border locations in Tysons Corner and Bowie.

I checked out the Chili’s in Crystal City, where every table has the tablets, which sit upright on built-in stands. While some eateries offer their full menus through Ziosk, Chili’s only allows diners to order appetizers, desserts, kid’s menu items, and drink refills from the screen. The technology initially caused some confusion for our table when it wouldn’t let us order beers. It turns out you have to order your first alcoholic beverage from your server, so he or she can check your ID. And while we could order beer refills from our screens, we couldn’t change our second-round drinks to margaritas.

The ordering system worked better on dessert. Our Ziosk let us select whether we wanted a hard chocolate shell on the ice cream atop our molten chocolate lava cake and how many spoons we needed. While we waited, we played Cupcake Frenzy—one of more than 20 games on the device.

Considering that the server didn’t deliver silverware or napkins until several minutes after our chicken fajitas and quesadillas arrived, I was happy not to have to flag him down again for a check. (Unfortunately, there’s no “remember napkins” button on the Ziosk, but if you do need a server, you can press a button on the screen, and a light on top of the machine flashes red.) Instead, I swiped my credit card at the table. A sliding scale let me calculate the tip, and then I had the option to print my receipt from the Ziosk or have it emailed to me. According to the company’s chief marketing officer, John Regal, nearly eight out of 10 people paying with credit cards at restaurants that have Ziosks use the device.

After the check is settled, the tablet asks for feedback. Between 20 and 30 percent of guests fill out the survey, Regal says. If someone leaves a really negative review, the Ziosk can page the manager so he or she can immediately come by the table to smooth things out.

The benefit for diners is pretty simple: If you’re in a rush to catch a movie or your child is having a meltdown, you can pay and go at your own convenience. For restaurants? Regal says it helps casual full-service restaurants better compete with fast-casual and quick-service spots that tend to be faster for people in a rush.

The Ziosks also bring restaurants a 20 percent increase in appetizer sales and 30 percent for desserts, Regal says; many people only want to allocate so much time to a meal, so if they can’t find the server to order dessert or another round of drinks, they might just skip it. The Ziosk gives them no such excuse. Plus, seeing delicious-looking photos of food may make people more likely to order something, Regal says, echoing menu research. Promotions are also time-based, so as you are finishing your meal, pictures of desserts will start popping up on the screen.

Right now, Ziosk is almost exclusively working with large chains. Integrating the tablets with the restaurants’ point-of-sale systems is more cost-effective for larger businesses now, Regal says. Restaurants pay a monthly service fee and share in a portion of the revenue generated through the Ziosk. (Regal wouldn’t get into more specifics.)

Meanwhile, Bolt Burgers’ tablet system was created by point-of-sale system developer Micros. Spinelli says the burger joint will be one of the first restaurants to adopt such a system from Micros. The restaurant invested close to $200,000 on its technology; Spinelli believes it will set Bolt Burgers apart from the competition.

Other restaurants and bars are relying on patrons to bring their own screens. A variety of different apps let you not only pay from your phone but get perks and special offers. Two apps that are just beginning to gain traction in D.C. restaurants are Tabbedout and Square Wallet.

With both apps, you check in when you arrive and tell the cashier or server you’re using the app. Square Wallet, which is used by Sundevich, Pitango, Chinatown Coffee, and other counter service spots, shows your photo to the cashier, who then automatically charges you—no scanning, swiping, or signing required.

Tabbedout has signed on more full-service restaurants and bars, including Tony & Joe’s, Dangerously Delicious Pies, DC9, and Nellie’s Sports Bar. The list is still fairly limited, but the company only recently began a marketing push in D.C. The app lets you track your tab as you go, and when you’re ready to leave, you can not only pay on your phone, but split the tab with others who also have the app. Tabbedout also tracks customers’ eating and drinking habits, so restaurants can see what’s selling and who their top customers are. The businesses can reward regulars with event invites or discounts sent through the app. They can also use offers to try to lure back customers who may haven’t returned in a while.

Nellie’s has gotten more than 1,000 people a month paying with Tabbedout since it began using the app about a year ago. Owner Doug Schantz says the app has helped speed up the lines at the bar on Friday and Saturday nights, giving bartenders more time to mix drinks and talk to customers. Schantz also says the app has helped cut back on the number of credit cards left behind at the end of the night. Nellie’s used to have at least 15 forgotten cards each night; now it’s down to six or seven.

But not everyone is seeing the same success. Tony & Joe’s has also been using Tabbedout for about a year, and fewer than five people use it a month.  “I think it’s a fantastic idea. Operationally, it works without a hitch,” says owner Greg Casten. “But the customer base would rather come up with a credit card and swipe it.” The cost of the app varies depending on the point-of-sale system the restaurant is using. In most cases, it’s free for merchants, says Tabbedout VP of Sales Ben Carolan, but at most, there’s a monthly fee around $50.

Other restaurants have developed their own branded apps. Sweetgreen launched its own Android and iPhone app—what co-owner Nic Jammet calls “Uber for salads”—in February. Unlike Square Wallet and Tabbedout, Sweetgreen’s app, built by Massachusetts-based LevelUp, requires users to scan a QR code on their phone when they reach the register. The app has caught on fast: Roughly one in five customers now pays using a phone. A few hundred people have reached “gold status”—meaning they’ve spent at least $1,000 through the app—giving them access to invite-only events plus swag and free salads on their birthdays. Sweetgreen is inviting some of those gold customers to a free dinner and discussion at its Capitol Hill location, where they’ll get feedback from their most loyal patrons—something that wasn’t possible before.

Just last week, Cava Mezze Grill introduced its own app, also created by LevelUp, for its five fast casual stores. CEO Brett Schulman says he wanted a branded app, rather than something like Tabbedout or Square Wallet, so customers could interact directly with the restaurant group.

Cava and Sweetgreen can send notifications or rewards that are unique to the customers’ preferences. If someone notes that they’re a vegan, for example, the restaurants could send them tailored recipes or notify them that there’s a special that fits their diet. Both chains have online ordering systems that they’re working to integrate into the apps. They also plan to allow users to gift a meal to friends.

Cava even has a nutrition calculator that it’s looking to add into the app so that when you go to eat, you can log it in a food journal. “There’s endless possibilities of ways we can distribute information to the customer,” Schulman says.

A small number of businesses in D.C. are using the apps now, but Schulman is certain it’s the way of the future. “People are moving from the analogue wallet to the digital wallet,” he says. “I think it’s just inevitable. It’s a matter of when, not if.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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